The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Road
 by Cormac McCarthy.
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Cormac McCarthy’s fiction has always possessed an apocalyptic
edginess—so who can be surprised that
he finally wrote a novel about end times?
Or that he seems so much at home in the
bleak and ominous landscapes of a dying
planet Earth?  His post-Armageddon
setting for
The Road, from one perspective,
is merely an extension of the violent,
inhospitable borderlands he has been
writing about for decades

You can tell a lot about writers from
whether their eschatology comes with a
bang or a whimper.  For Cormac McCarthy
there is only a long, drawn-out and
anguished grinding to a halt.  There is no
Rapture in this author's vision of the final
days: everyone is left behind here.  Except,
those who are already dead before the narrative starts—and,
McCarthy hints, they may be the most fortunate of them all.

A man and his son are struggling for survival in the aftermath of
some devastating cataclysm. McCarthy offers few details of the
events that led to this situation. His reticence on this account is
surprising, when one considers the other writers who have used the
depiction of dark future times as a springboard for political
commentary. Whether George Orwell or Ayn Rand, Margaret
Atwood or Aldous Huxley, the prognosticators have pretended to
talk about the future, when their real interest is in offering incisive
commentary on their present day society. Yes,
1984 is a book about
1948, as becomes all the clearer with the passage of time.  
Brave
New World
is, among other things, a guide to a now departed world,
whose naive positivism we can hardly imagine nowadays. But
McCarthy not only resists the temptation to offer a political angle to
his book—he even seems blissfully unaware that this is even an
option open to him.

Everything in this book happens on an immediate, personal level.
You are free to draw your own sociological lessons from it,
construct your own theology, puff up your own ideology—but that
will be your contribution, not the author’s.  McCarthy keeps focused
on the predicament of his protagonists, and never lets the reader
escape into the theoretical.  And that is the source of this book’s
unrelenting power.
The Road, for all its brilliance, is one of the most
agonizing books you will ever read.  It kept me squirming in my seat,
when I read it—almost every page made me distinctly
uncomfortable.

Yet I couldn’t put this book down. Long before fiction learned to
philosophize, it focused its energies on circumscribing the most
basic elements of the human condition.  The history of story-telling,
from the
Iliad to the last episode of Lost, is a series of “what ifs.”  
People have always been attracted to stories of ordinary individuals
thrust into extraordinary circumstances. McCarthy pushes this
convention to the limits.  His father and son can take nothing for
granted—food, shelter, health, physical safety—and the surrounding
anarchy suggests that anyone else they encounter will be looking to
kill, maim, enslave, or perhaps even cook them up for supper.

And then there is the journey.  This is another staple of Cormac
McCarthy’s fiction, populated by restless characters who constantly
head off into the unknown—an unknown that, given this author’s
dark vision, is typically worse than the lousy place they just left
behind. In
The Road his protagonists set out to the south, in the
direction of the sea. Here they hope to find some remnant of
civilization, perhaps a healthier climate, or an more stable and
secure environment.

The Road has found a surprisingly enthusiastic audience given its
foreboding and, at times, gruesome sensibility.  It won the Pulitzer,
made it into Oprah’s book club, and was placed by
Entertainment
Weekly
at the top of a list of the best books of the last 25 years.
Entertainment Weekly?  If this is entertainment, I think I will trade
in my big screen TV for a long stint in solitary confinement. This
gripping novel will force readers outside their comfort zones, and
ultimately succeeds without making even the smallest concession to
the formulas of escapist fiction.

Everything in this book serves to accentuate its bleak tone. The
prose is harsh, with few flourishes to soften the reader’s progress.
The dialogue is choppy and utilitarian. The landscape—always
important in setting the atmosphere in McCarthy’s books—hardly
more inviting than a battlefield or the dark side of the moon.

But even in this bitter world, a few noble things remain: a shred of
conscience, a willingness for self-sacrifice, the pull of blood ties, a
struggle for survival.  They are intangibles, of course; nothing you
can take to the bank or eat for supper.  But McCarthy—and this is his
great achievement here—shows how fiercely we hold on to our
personal metaphysics even after we have left everything else
behind. Not many novels force us to confront such matters—
certainly not in the raw and bleeding manner that Cormac McCarthy
does.  For that reason, I suspect that
The Road will continue to
mesmerize readers long after more compact tales of apocalypse,
with their neat political commentaries and helpful hints for
legislators, have fallen out of favor.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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